How to Light a Space Station

You’ve heard it all before: LEDs are more efficient, long lasting, lighter and more durable than their predecessors.  But for all the benefits they have down here on Earth, up in space where living is pushed to the limits, these benefits are not only convenient but could be revolutionary.

The_International_Space_Station_with_ATV-2_and_EndeavourIn our ‘Lose the Jet Lag’ post, we talked about how changing time zones can affect our body clocks.  Now imagine that effect but instead of simply jumping across time zones, you are effectively leaving them behind to go from a 24 hour day to a 90 minute one.  That’s the problem affecting crew on the International Space Station right now, along with a variety of other issues such as noise, temperature changes, and poor air circulation, all accumulating in a horrible night’s sleep, every single night.  In fact, although there is a scheduled 8 hour time for sleeping, due to these problems and other job related issues, most astronauts only get 6 hours.


Astronauts Pam Melroy, George Zamka, bottom right,and European Space Agency’s Paolo Nespoli, sleep in their sleeping bags.


This sleep deprivation wouldn’t matter too much if it was simply one day, or even a week, but as it accumulates into months worth, the astronauts put themselves at increased risk of depression, sickness, and mistakes which can be dangerous and expensive.

So what are the solutions?  One would be to use medication to help sleep, which has actually been used.  In a 2001 report, NASA stated that half of all astronauts would use sleep medication at some point during their time in space, and that half of all medication taken on board was sleep related, making it the second most popular medication after pain killers.  However, this can lead to dependency and a difficulty in waking up in emergency situations, both of which can lead to serious problems.


*Depiction may not be entirely accurate


Another option involves using the lighting, specifically LEDs.  Lighting within the International Space Station has been replaced with special LEDs which have colour change technology which mimics the Earth’s natural sunlight cycle.  In the morning, the lights will be blue as this supresses the sleep hormone melatonin, making the astronauts more alert upon waking up.  The lights will go to white for the remainder of the day but will change to red at ‘night’ as this encourages melatonin to be created, hopefully giving the crew a more restful sleep, as their bodies will be prepared for it.

One problem that had to be overcome however, was the fact that the lights couldn’t simply be changed to a blue bulb and a red bulb, as this would mess with the workers colour perception.  The stakes in hitting the red button or the pink button are a little higher in space than on earth, and so to combat this, the lights are all still technically in the white-light spectrum, with subtle shifts in their colour, and have been tested down here on earth before being sent.  Previously, the craft had been lit on the inside with fluorescent tubes, and on the outside with powerful metal-halide lights.


There is even more exciting news for space and LED lovers alike, as the Chinese Space Station Tiangong, scheduled for 2022, will be entirely lit by LED lights.  From the spotlights illuminating spacewalks, to the astronauts bedside lights, all the light provided will be from LED sources because of their light weight, ability to operate at low temperatures, and smaller design.  In fact, China’s National Space Administration has been waiting since 2003 for the technology to be advanced enough to use in space, and began using them in 2008 for Shenzheu 7, the country’s first space walk.

The powers of LEDs clearly know no bounds and their applications in space may help further their uses down here on Earth too.


Abigail Houseman

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